Michael Phelps is a winner, the biggest winner of all time. Make that modern times. Excuse me, the Modern Era, 1896 in Athens, the moment we started counting. His seventeen gold medals weigh about five pounds, and if tied to his feet along with a brick or two they might sink him to the bottom of an Olympic-size pool, where he would see me struggling after the mere attempt at a dive. I’m not a swimmer. I was trained on water, but hard and frozen, carving little contrails on the ice, hurling myself upward. Even then, more often than not, I’d land on my ass, wondering why I would do such a thing. Just like Ms. Kerrigan, crying "Why?" on American national television, over and over, a spectacle of disaster in repetition — like Vinko Bogataj’s “Agony of Defeat” or the Louganis diving-board thwap — after a simple swat to the knee sank her to the floor.
On the other hand: I see bodies rising against gravity by some mechanical propulsion; of an ideal Icarus forever ascending, in an air so far from ground as to be without context except myth. This is the climax of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, filmed on commission from Hitler. To see her divers framed against nothing but sky, not seeming to fall but fly, is to be asked to submit to the obverse of drowning that same diver.
Either projected upon an athlete or constructed by a filmmaker, fantasy only needs a spectator.
A sadist would bind Phelps and dump him off a springboard. Less extreme is a guy who gets off on Schadenfreude, who would savor a simple defeat. Either way the result would be something to watch, as much as a victory (although NBC wisely trades on the latter). Point is, sport doesn’t need winners or losers to be sport so much as it needs rules. Fair is Federer’s loss to Nadal, Wimbledon ‘08. Fair is Kerrigan’s silver to Baiul’s gold, Lillehammer ‘94 (even if her contusion at the hands of Tonya Harding’s henchmen, Gillooly, Eckhardt et al, was criminal). Unfair are Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and the other baseball batters who doped up. Unfair are the hockey players, too many to keep track of, who punch or bash or slam or otherwise attack each other when the referee’s back is turned. If caught, they’re thrown in the penalty box.
So we can say: Gillooly and Eckhardt had their own penalty box, the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institute. What we’re saying when we say this is that rule in sport is like law in the state, in that it structures what is and is not allowed. Sport becomes a model. In a word, all of its players, actions and rules become metaphor.
Wrestling, as Roland Barthes wrote about it, is the apex of this meeting of the actual with invented form. It is a spectacularization, or pure theater parading as sport. And it is a specific type of metaphor, namely allegory. The wrestler occupies a predetermined role—of winner, loser, hero, cheater, et-cetera—and so portrays “an ideal understanding of things” to the spectator. The fan in the bleachers apprehends that the cheater who hammers his foe with the butt-end of a chair, but then cries foul when fairly pinned, is bound by a set of conventions and sites larger than any particular wrestling ring; that he reifies the explicit rules announced by the referee, while occupying “a particular instance of the possible”1* within the larger field in which he is expected to cheat (and in turn be beaten).
In The Man Without Content the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben reminds us that the split between a spectator and the work of an artist was not conceptualized as such before God was deemed dead, and only occurred when Nietzsche located the ascendance of the artist’s “demiurgic experience of absolute freedom” in Kant’s idea of the beautiful as that “which gives us pleasure without interest;” or, in other words, in Kant’s idea of an aesthetic object which is separate from its spectator, and which is crafted according to its own demands. From this antecedent Agamben sees the beginning of taste, its attendant experts, and their inexorable drive in an absolute culture (independent of God) toward an ever more medium-specific (or disinterested) art. This art is an ironic, self-negating art, typified in the last century by the ready-made (think of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel, which makes an art object out of an industrial one), and the pop-art object (think of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, which make an art object into an industrial one). Previous to this was an art that did not have a spectator because it had neither “an autonomous sphere nor a particular identity,” but instead, as it was collected alongside shells and dinosaur bones, served as a compendium of the human world. It was “the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth.” I can only take this to mean that it measured the immeasurable as such; that it represented the ineffable.
The title of David Foster Wallace’s Federer as Religious Experience is all you need to read to know that his penchant for parentheticals, footnotes, self- reflexive feints and other po-mo techniques merely circle around the center of something immeasurable and ineffable that can only be accounted for as miraculous. Being disposed to a psychoanalytic understanding of things, I see the center as empty and call it a lack, all the more identifiable for its concurrence with Wallace’s anxious identification with and desire for the phallic mastery embodied by Federer, who is “beautiful,” “made of light,” and “exempt... from physical laws.“ Wallace writes that the “kinetic beauty” of watching someone like Federer (and I would add, the problem of being actually, physically related to someone) is based on “human beings’ reconciliation with having a body,” (and I would add, a body that is not also that of another).
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan writes of the objet petit-a as the “object-cause of desire,” around which desire circles but can never approach. 2* Still, time and again, we see the investment of part-objects as surrogates for the objet-a, in attempt after attempt to fill the gaping hole of its lack: Wallace plugs his eyes, site of the scopic drive, with the deific vision of Federer; Matthew Barney caulks his ass with Vaseline, making his body less porous and more dick-like; Mike Tyson goes nuts like Van Gogh and mutes his mouth by stuffing it with Holyfield’s bitten, bloody ear; and a mother somewhere binds the baby and drowns it in the bathwater, a sacrifice of the ultimate part-object due to the mother’s psychotic inability to re-assimilate the child into her narcissistic illusion of completeness.
Among these disparate behaviors, from hero worship to filicide, is also the work of artists, who are in the business of producing part objects. 3* Exactly because art is malleable and fit for a range of symbolic functions, it is ripe for fulfilling the function of a religion that no longer codifies the mystery of having a body. It is no surprise that an overdetermined art of this kind, not only dependent on identification but trafficking in the body as its primary object, would find sport as a subject, theme, or form, its athletes as icons, and its arenas as the link between the cathedral and the museum. 4*
Drowning Phelps and relishing his victory are proximate in that they are both fantasies. As existing within the realm of the psychic, they are in service of unconscious desires that are otherwise unfulfilled. The difference is nil.
The divers from Riefenstahl’s Olympia, reversed in their descent, flung upwards and backwards and back in time, are subject to the apparatus of film and the will of its director, bent on aligning the Aryan with a Classical ideal. Such technocratic mastery is fascist, and the beauty Riefenstahl purports to portray stands but a few steps from the horror of the camps. The proximity is frightening.
The recognition of the range of controls the state exercises over the body is exactly the necessary acknowledgement of the commonality of the totalitarian and the democratic: both are structured upon a sovereign control of the body, the authority to define specific persons or bodies as outside the right to life. 5*
Athletic events are not typically marked with the type of theatrical distanciation that might turn someone in the stands on to the idea that the one field (sport) is like another field (the state). 6* However, whether or not it announces its predisposition, an athletic event, its representation, as all representations (that is, all artworks), conveys a proposition to the spectator as to how it is to be seen and understood; as to how the spectator is structured in viewing. This structuring is an enactment of a politics.
These days the only sport I watch is the sport I play as I play it. It’s non-competitive, popular in Brazil, and introduced to me by another artist. We stand on the beach about ten feet apart hitting a ball back and forth, attempting to keep it in the air. The ball can be hard or soft, the arc direct or lobbed, the pace brisk or leisurely, the conversation topical or rambling, the weather cloudy or clear. Regardless, we sustain it: we aim not at but for each other; we mirror; we watch. It’s not art. It’s relational.
1. As Andrea Fraser often says, following the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who was in turn invoking the philosopher Gaston Bachelard.
2. To clarify: the objet-a is not the thing we desire, but that which causes our desire. The lack that desire attempts to fulfill can never be filled, and so this is why we think of desire as circling around the objet-a, and why Lacan’s various schemata (which describe his psychoanalytic concepts in mathematical terms) usually feature the figure of the objet-a as within a circle.
3. The production of objects inheres a drive. Once removed from the ken of the artist the object continues to be invested with symbolic value: a collector may buy a sculpture to unconsciously reify the dimensionality of his body, or to support the career of an artist with whom he identifies, or to have the object itself be that which buys him entry into the field of legitimate culture (and its attendant sexual and social relations) which may have consecrated the object as valuable in the first place.
4. Matthew Barney might be the primary example—his work is often described in terms of a pseudo-religious cosmology dependent upon an iconography borrowed from athletics (among other fields)—however there seems to be an increasing number of works in a related vein, such as Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s Zidane.
5. Agamben deals with bio-power in many texts, primarily Homo-sacer.
6. I’m referring to Bertolt Brecht. Another reference that brings together theater and religion is Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and its link to Liberation Theology.